Tag Archives: outlandish prediction

OP: End of the Lucky Horseshoe

Time for an outlandish prediction, or if you’d rather, a little preja vu…

The future arc of the Indianapolis Colts has been brewing in my mind for a while now, ever since Tony Dungy decided to retire after the 2009 season. And as the offseason has gone on, I’ve become more and more convinced that the horseshoe that has been pointed up for so long in Indy is going to turn downward. I’ve said as much in private email conversations for a while now, and now I’m goin’ public.

To leave the land of the metaphor and say it plainly, here’s the prediction:

The Colts won’t win 10 games this year.

That’s a big deal, because the Colts won at least 10 games in each of the 7 years of Dungy’s tenure (2002-08). In fact, Indy won at least 12 regular season games in each of the last six years.

But that run will come to an end this offseason. And here’s why:

*Jim Caldwell isn’t up to it – We’ve gone into this at great detail here on the site. (You can read here how I compare the Caldwell hiring to others this offseason and read here what I don’t like about Caldwell’s career path.) I lived through the Caldwell experience at Wake Forest when I was a student there, and while he is a very nice man he’s not a good coach. He came to Wake Forest with a Joe Paterno pedigree, and he gets this Colts job with a Tony Dungy pedigree. But a pedigree is not a guarantee. I simply can’t believe in Caldwell as an NFL coach.

*Staff turnover – The Colts apparently hired Caldwell as Dungy’s successor in waiting to preserve staff continuity. But that didn’t work, because the Colts will have new coordinators on offense, defense, and special teams. The offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, retired (along with OL coach Howard Mudd) in fears of losing pension money. Moore and Mudd will remain as consultants, and their replacements – Clyde Christensen as offensive coordinator and Pete Metzelaars as line coach – have been in Indy for 7 and 5 years, respectively. But losing Moore and Mudd cuts the staff’s overall experience, and something will get lost in transition. Even Peyton Manning has questions about how it’s going to work.

On defense, the Colts wanted a more aggressive scheme than Dungy’s patented Tampa 2, and so they encouraged coordinator Ron Meeks to resign. (He landed in Carolina.) That smacks of a new coach’s arrogance in trying to implement his system and his way. The Colts’ defense wasn’t great, but it was OK, and the personnel fit it. But Meeks was replaced by Larry Coyer, who has a reputation of being blitz happy from his previous stops. There’s no way the current personnel – which haven’t been upgraded on defense – can take a huge step forward with the new scheme with the current personnel. Instead, I expect a step back, if not two. And the fact that Coyer and Caldwell used to work together makes me wonder if cronyism, not strategy, prompted the move.

Caldwell also cut special-teams coach Russ Purnell loose. That’s not a big deal, except it’s another sign that Caldwell is trying extremely hard – too hard, in our opinion – to put his own stamp on the team. The team was winning 12 games a year, and a failed college coach wants to put his stamp on it?  That’s just not a good idea.

*The divisions are labor – The Colts have made hay in an AFC South that is traditionally a so-so division. Jacksonville and Tennessee have each been good at times, but rarely at the same time. But Tennessee should be tough this year, and Jacksonville (who always gives the Colts problems) should bounce back. Plus, Houston continues to get incrementally better. It will be hard for the Colts to get to 4 wins in the division. The Colts play the NFC West out of conference, which will help the win ledger, but drawing the entire AFC East plus a road game at Baltimore is no bargain. (Thanks to Andy for starting my thought process on the schedule.)

*Roster rut – If you look at the transactions ledger, the Colts have only added one free agent from another team – backup linebacker Adam Seward. They have lost some key players, including P Hunter Smith, DT Darrell Reid, CB Keiwan Ratliff, and most notably WR Marvin Harrison. The problem is that marginal draft picks will have to replace most of these guys. While that long-term strategy works, in the short term that could lead to some growing pains. And this is a team with too much in flux to afford many growing pains.

All in all, I see the Colts slipping noticably this year – even with Peyton Manning, Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne, and the other stars there. The personnel depth has always been so-so because the Colts had so many stars, and that will show up negatively especially as the defense attempts to change schemes.

And remember how fortunate the Colts were to get to 12 wins last year. Over the first half of the season, the Colts were 3-4 including two white-knuckles wins over Minnesota and Houston that could have easily gone the other way. The Colts will not be good enough this year to turn those white-knucklers into wins, and the difference will show in the win/loss record. The horseshoe isn’t lucky enough to save the Colts in 2009.

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Filed under outlandish prediction, preja vu

Preja Vu – The Football Relativity 2009 Mock Draft

After much ado, we finally present the Football Relativity Mock Draft.

Instead of doing umpteen versions of mock (read: made-up) drafts this offseason, we tried to be different than other sites by focusing on more specific issues. You can look back through the draft coverage to see analysis, opinions, and outlandish predictions on the biggest stories of the draft — Stafford vs. Sanchez, where Michael Crabtree fits, and what Aaron Curry’s upside is (and is not). We also looked at the offensive and defensive positions that are most likely or least likely to produce busts in the first half of the first round.

Now that all that is done, it’s time to make the outlandish prediction and do the mock draft. So here is the first round, as I predict it. Of course this is preja vu, not deja vu, so there will be mistakes. But I’ll let you know what I’m thinking as we go along. As always, feel free to leave comments criticizing, questioning, or confirming what you read below.

1. Lions – QB Matthew Stafford, Georgia
If you’ve been reading the relativity, you know that I think Mark Sanchez will be a better pro than Stafford. In fact, I would probably pick Sanchez at No. 1 this year were I the decision-maker. But that’s a minority view, and so the preja vu projection is that Detroit takes Stafford. Stafford has a big arm and he got better each year he started at Georgia, both of which are huge check marks on his resume. Plus, there’s a pretty significant sample size of data for Stafford even though he left as a junior. So while this pick is a bit of a gamble, it’s not a gamble on the level of San Francisco’s Alex Smith pick a few years back. If this was a quarterback-rich draft, I would recommend the Lions passing on a quarterback at No. 1 and instead taking Jason Smith, but since there is no high-level quarterback option beyond Stafford and Sanchez, the Lions all but have to go quarterback first. There will be a tackle available at 20.

2. Rams – OT Jason Smith, Baylor
Smith projects as a top-level player in the NFL, and he would be a godsend for the Rams. St. Louis has the experience of drafting Orlando Pace and not having to worry about left tackle for a decade, so there will be a comfort level among the fans for investing in a tackle this early. Plus, left tackle is a core building position, which makes this an especially valuable pick. The Rams wanted Jake Long last year but missed out, which again points to a left tackle here. Everything is lining up for Smith to be a Ram.

3. Chiefs – LB Aaron Curry, Wake Forest
The draft will start to be in flux at this pick. Eugene Monroe would make sense at this pick, but because the Chiefs picked Branden Albert and started him at left tackle all season last year, we’re not anticipating that possibility. Still, it is worth noting that Albert played guard in college, and so a Monroe selection isn’t a complete impossibility. Also, if a team is absolutely in love with Sanchez, this is the spot they’ll have to get to in order to absolutely ensure that they get him. Most teams are probably hoping to trade up to 10 or 8 to get Sanchez, but I have a hunch that won’t be high enough. But if the Chiefs stay put, my guess is that they don’t overcomplicate things. Curry will be a 10-year starter inside in the 3-4, and he’ll be a stalwart of the middle level of the defense. While I don’t think he’ll ever be a breakout superstar, he’ll be a good run-stuffer, a good coverage ‘backer, and a solid citizen. That recipe adds up to a core player in K.C.’s still-massive rebuilding project.

4. Seahawks – QB Mark Sanchez, USC
The Sanchez shoe is going to drop early, folks. There’s too much buzz about him right now for him to have a Brady Quinn/Aaron Rodgers type of slide into the 20s of the first round – or even a Ben Roethlisberger slide into the early teens. While there aren’t a ton of QB-needy teams in the top 10, Sanchez’s value is too much to pass up. We’ll slot him to the Seahawks because Matt Hasselbeck is closer to the end than the beginning and coming off an injury-plagued season. But this is also a trade possibility. Regardless, I see Sanchez coming off the board in the top 5 because someone will be desperate to get him. And whoever drafts him – even in the top 5 – will end up being glad that they did.

5. Browns – WR Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech
Crabtree is the other talent who simply can’t stay on the board too long because he’s too good. And if the Browns were to deal Braylon Edwards, which is of course a hot rumor, then they would frankly be stupid to pass on Crabtree. Crabtree might actually end up being better than Edwards, which is saying something. He’s a big possession receiver who can catch the ball in traffic and make things happen after the catch. When you’re being compared to Larry Fitzgerald — and I’ve heard Crabtree in such a comparison on Jeremy Green’s ESPN podcast — you’re in really good company. Cleveland should feel comfortable building an offense around Crabtree and OT Joe Thomas regardless of who the quarterback is. This would be a great value pick.

6. Bengals – OT Eugene Monroe, Virginia
The Bengals have a history of drafting talented players with questionable character, which is why so many mock drafts connect them to Alabama OT Andre Smith and his baggage. But if Sanchez catapults up the draft, someone has to slip, and I think that will be Monroe. If that happens, the Bengals will rejoice. Like Andre and Jason Smith, Monroe is a talented tackle who has the ability to be a bookend for many years. He’s probably not an elite Orlando Pace/Jonathan Ogden/Walter Jones level player, but he’s good enough to be a reliable, above-average starter a la longtime Bengal Willie Anderson. Monroe would be the kind of pick who could help the Bengals move forward, which is exactly what’s needed in Cincinnati.

7. Raiders – OT Andre Smith, Alabama
Most mock drafters have the Raiders taking Jeremy Maclin, and maybe they know something I don’t. But while Raiders maven Al Davis loves speed, this pick may fit his pattern even more. The Raiders have done the best job of accumulating talent when they’ve taken players who were passed over by risk-averse teams who were concerned about character. That’s the situation Andre Smith is in. He was the most dominant offensive lineman in college football last year, but his bowl-game suspension and then his combine/workout follies have dropped the bottom out of his stock. But he’s still a really good player who will be a top-level right tackle in the NFL and could be an elite left tackle. (Addendum: Remember that Tom Cable, the Raiders’ head coach of the moment, is an offensive line guy.) My hunch is that the Raiders overlook the concerns about Smith and go for the best football talent on the board.

8. Jaguars – CB Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State
This pick is a real X-factor in the draft, for this reason. Last year, the Jaguars leapt up to the No. 8 spot in the draft to take DE Derrick Harvey, and then they couldn’t get him signed until September. So it seems that this year, the Jags don’t have the stomach to pick (and pay) a player this high again and would like to trade down. But if Sanchez is off the board already, what player on the board has enough value that someone would trade up fro him? So a trade might be difficult. Then consider this: After taking DEs Harvey and Quentin Groves in the first two rounds last year, Jacksonville isn’t really a candidate for any of the ends who fit in this area, and the franchise’s utter failure taking first-round receivers (from R. Jay Soward to Reggie Williams to Matt Jones) makes Maclin seem like a bad projection as well. The needs chart says that Maclin, B.J. Raji, and Malcolm Jenkins are fits here. We’re going with Jenkins, a top-10 prospect pre-combine who slipped after running a slower-than-expected 40 time. He’s a big corner who can play physically and tackle, and that seems to fit Jacksonville’s personality well.

9. Packers – DE Tyson Jackson, LSU
Green Bay is moving to a 3-4 defense this year, and so they must get a player who is friendly to that system. Pass-rushers Brian Orakpo and Aaron Maybin do, as does Raji, who might be big enough to be the Jamal Williams/Vince Wilfork/Casey Hampton nose tackle. But Raji’s character concerns make me put Jackson in this spot. Jackson can play 4-3 defensive end, but he’s big enough to move inside a tick and play end in the 3-4, a la Richard Seymour. Jackson can hold up against the run and provide some pass rush even from that interior position, and it’s harder to find a top guy with those qualities than it is to find the glamorous pass rusher, so Jackson is the fit.

10. 49ers – WR Jeremy Maclin, Missouri
Instead of winding up in Oakland, we see Maclin ending up across the bay. Maclin is a dynamic receiver who has decent size and blazing speed, and he can be the playmaker the Niners have lacked at receiver since T.O. whined his way out of town. With Isaac Bruce coming back for a year, Maclin would have an ideal mentor, as well as a little less pressure in ’09. He would also fill a need, because unless Brandon Jones takes three quantum leaps forward, the 49ers have no game-breaking threat in the passing game. San Francisco would be a great situation for Maclin to move into, and he would be a good value for the 49ers at this point.

11. Bills – DE Brian Orakpo, Texas
Over the past few years, the Bills have drafted more for need than any other team. They have “reached” for players and picked them over their rating because (a) they were at positions of need and (b) they were convinced the players would be good. So we looked closely at the team needs list before predicting this pick. The trade of Jason Peters gave us pause and opened the possibility that OT Michael Oher would be the pick here. But pass rusher is also a need, and none of them are off our board now. While Aaron Maybin may be a bit more highly rated, Orakpo is a little bigger and little more suited to a 4-3 defense, at least in a John Abraham type of role given his size. So he’s the pick here.

12. Broncos – DT B.J. Raji, Boston College
The Broncos are moving to a 3-4 defense, and they need tons of help on that side of the ball. After trading Jay Cutler, it would make sense for the Broncos to take Mark Sanchez if he falls to them, but there’s zero chance of that happening. (You can quote me on that.) And given the proliferation of defensive needs the Broncos have, trading their two first-rounders to get Sanchez just isn’t wise. So we have them staying put and taking 3-4 friendly defensive players. They start with Raji, a true nose tackle who is big enough to play the pivot in the 3-4. His stock has slipped a little because of character questions, but he’s not getting past this spot. Another reason for the downward trend is the difficulty of getting it right at defensive tackle early in the draft, as we discovered in defensive portion of the draft bust research project. If Raji (or Tyson Jackson) is there, the Broncos will spend their first pick on the front line and then look for an OLB pass rusher at No. 18. If Raji stays on the straight and narrow, he would be a great building block for the Broncos to get at this point.

13. Redskins – DE Robert Ayers, Tennessee
The Redskins apparently are lusting after Sanchez, so don’t be surprised if they leap into the top 5 to get him. But if they don’t trade up, they’re in position where they need help on the lines. After Jason Taylor didn’t work out last year, a pass rusher is a special need, and Ayers is the purest 4-3 defensive end available at the top of the draft. He’s sturdy enough to hang in there against the run and has shown flashes of great pass rush ability. He has the ostentatious potential that appeals to owner Daniel Snyder, so the pick makes sense from that perspective too.

14. Saints – OLB Brian Cushing, USC
The Saints simply have to draft defense, which remains the biggest problem on their to-do list. The offense is good enough to win right now, but the defense isn’t. And since the Saints are in a 4-3, the undersized pass rushers left on the board (Maybin and Everette Brown) don’t really work. So we’ll give the Saints Cushing, a legit outside linebacker who can become a stalwart run stopper and coverage guy. Cushing is the best of the three Trojans’ linebackers expected to be first-rounders because he’s the most versatile and most consistent. He could team with Jonathan Vilma to begin to stabilize the middle level of the Saints’ defense.

15. Texans – OT Michael Oher, Ole Miss
Oher probably isn’t a wonderful value at this point, but offensive tackles tend to move up the draft board at the end because it’s such a need position. Oher (subject of the wonderful book The Blind Side) is a physical specimen who played well but not exceedingly well at Ole Miss. While he’s not a sure thing at left tackle, he would be a beast of a right tackle, and that’s a need spot for Houston as well. So we’re projecting a run and taking Oher off the board before most experts are prognosticating.

16. Chargers – DE/OLB Aaron Maybin, Penn State
The Chargers are a strange team in that they don’t have pressing needs because of strong organizational depth. But given Shawne Merriman’s injury and contract concerns, and given the importance of pass rushers in the 3-4 system, Maybin makes sense here. He would be a great value for San Diego and would help immediately, even if he only played a bit role as a rookie. My guess is that GM A.J. Smith might even crack a smile if Maybin fell in his lap.

17. Jets – WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, Maryland
This is another flex spot in the draft. Do the Jets want Josh Freeman? Will they roll the dice on a receiver? Or do they play it safe? It seems like a little bit of risk is warranted, given the Jets’ dearth of offensive playmakers. So we’ll project them taking Heyward-Bey, a big strong receiver who was productive in college even if his performance was spotty at times. It’s a risk, but the Jets need to take such a risk to upgrade their mediocre receiving group.

18. Broncos (from Bears in the QB Jay Cutler trade) – DE/OLB Everette Brown, Florida State
We’ve already given the Broncos a front-line defender for their new 3-4 scheme; now it’s time to upgrade the edge. Brown was a beast on the field for the Seminoles, and he has the kind of speed that projects well to the outside linebacker/pass rusher spot in the 3-4 defense. While a Raji/Brown combo isn’t sexy, it would set the Broncos up to take a leap forward defensively in ’09. Of course, it would also put the onus on Josh McDaniels to keep the offense humming along, but that’s going to happen anyway.

19. Buccaneers – MLB Rey Maualuga, USC
The Buccaneers are another team in flux, especially on defense. Longtime stalwart Derrick Brooks is gone, and the team needs to find a new defensive leader. Maualuga can be that guy. He’s a productive inside ‘backer who takes some chances but delivers on his fair share of them. He also has the personality of a leader, which is needed in Tampa right now. The Bucs have invested in their offense in the offseason market by adding Byron Leftwich, Derrick Ward, and Kellen Winslow, plus new deals for Michael Clayton, Antonio Bryant, and Donald Penn. So it makes sense for the Bucs to invest on defense in the draft, which again points to Maualuga.

20. Lions (from Dallas in the WR Roy Williams trade) – OT Eben Britton, Arizona
If I were putting the Lions together, the approach would be to take the quarterback at the top of the draft and then build the offensive line. (Call if the Falcon plan, after Atlanta drafted Matt Ryan early last year and then traded back into the first round to take Sam Baker.) The plan works best for Detroit if Michael Oher falls to 20, but if he’s not there, it’s probably still wise to take an offensive lineman here. At almost every other position, the value that’s available at 20 is very similar to the value at 33, but not at offensive tackle. That’s why Britton is slotted here.

21. Eagles – DT Peria Jerry, Ole Miss
The Jason Peters trade completely changed Philly’s approach to this pick. Instead of taking a luxury like Knowshon Moreno with one of two first-round picks, the Eagles will likely buckle down and play it safe with their single top pick. That points to a defensive lineman, because the Eagles seem to take a DL every year early. This year, there’s one defensive tackle (after B.J. Raji) with a true first-round grade in Jerry, and he actually will fit an attacking 4-3 scheme well. So Jerry’s the guy for Philly.

22. Vikings – QB Josh Freeman, Kansas State
This is the answer to the Josh Freeman question. I don’t believe he’s good enough for a team in the teens – Washington, the Jets, Tampa – to pick as their QB of the future. But I do think Freeman will be a first-rounder after a team trades back into the round to take him. (See Joe Flacco, J.P. Losman, and Jason Campbell as examples.) Minnesota is a logical candidate to trade back, and here’s why: They need a center to replace Matt Birk and receivers. There’s depth at both of those positions through pick 40 or so. So the Vikings could trade back, pick up an extra pick or two, and still get what they need. One more consideration: It wouldn’t shock me for the Vikings to stay put and take Freeman, given the massive questions that remain around Tarvaris Jackson. All those things together make this Freeman’s spot in the draft.

23. Patriots – DE/OLB Larry English, Northern Illinois
The Patriots often seem to overdraft players above their spots because they know who they want and because they believe in their evaluation system. So it will be no surprise to see a surprise here. English isn’t rated this highly on most boards, but he’s a quality pass rusher as an OLB who was productive in college. That’s a need area for the Pats, who have lost Mike Vrabel this offseason. I think the pick will be defense regardless, with a corner like Darius Butler or Alphonso Smith also a possibility.

24. Falcons – MLB James Laurinaitis, Ohio State
This is another pick that might seem like a bit of an overdraft, but remember that Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff is a Patriots disciple and that his “overdraft” of Sam Baker last year worked out OK. After Keith Brooking left, a middle linebacker who can solidify the defense is a necessity for the Falcons. That’s what Laurainitis is. He’s not a dynamic playmaker, but he’s a solid, Chris Spielman type who will anchor a defense for 8-10 years. As the Falcons continue their rebuilding project, they’ll sign on for that.

25. Dolphins – CB Darius Butler, Connecticut
A lot of the ESPN types have been hyping the fact that UConn’s still-new football program is going to produce three first-round picks this year. That’s a Bristol, Connecticut, stretch, but Butler’s a legit first-rounder. He has good size and speed, which moves him ahead of Wake Forest’s Alphonso Smith and other candidates. The Dolphins had a solid season last year, but they don’t have enough playmakers, and cornerback’s a place where they need that kind of help. So Butler fits in as Bill Parcells’ big grocery purchase this year.

26. Ravens – RB Knowshon Moreno, Georgia
Running backs seem to slip most years in the draft, and often they end up with unlikely teams because the point comes when the value of the player is too good to pass up. (See Steven Jackson to the Rams when they had Marshall Faulk or Larry Johnson to the Chiefs when they had Priest Holmes.) That’s what I see happening to Moreno, a top 15 talent, this year. But there will come a point when a contender like Baltimore that has good but not great running backs will have to go ahead and take him. If Moreno ends up on such a contender, he’s going to be a difference maker, and with enough chances will be a rookie of the year candidate. In other words, he would be great value, even if he’s not at a need position. NOTE: This pick is rumored to be going to Arizona for Anquan Boldin.

27. Colts – OLB Clay Matthews, USC
The Colts are moving away from the Tampa-2 defense, but they don’t have the talent to make that transition smooth at all. So I think defense has to be the pick here, even though Indy has broken conventional wisdom before and loaded up on offense. Matthews is a try-hard guy who’s a good athlete and a good leader – the kind of guy you want to build a new defensive system around. Because this late in the draft there aren’t dominant players left, a guy like Matthews is the best option for a leader to help the Colts recast their defense.

28. Bills (from Panthers in the ’08 draft-day OT Jeff Otah trade via Eagles in the Jason Peters trade) – TE Brandon Pettigrew, Oklahoma State
As we said before, the Bills have been known to reach. If they try to replace Jason Peters here with a tackle, they’ll be reaching for a Phil Loadholt or William Beatty. But since they have a tight end need, getting Pettigrew at this point would be nice value. Pettigrew is a good pass catching tight end with good size – the kind of offensive complement that seems to fit the Buffalo weather. Getting Pettigrew plus a pass rusher would be a nice first-round haul for the Bills.

29. Giants – CB Vontae Davis, Illinois
This pick is still in flux because it’s at the center of the Giants’ trade discussions for a receiver like Anquan Boldin or, more likely, Braylon Edwards. If they keep the pick, they could look receiver at someone like Hakeem Nicks or Kenny Britt. But last year we saw that receivers can slip in the draft because they generally contribute so little as rookies. So we’ll look at another Giants need and give them the most talented cornerback on the board in Davis. Davis’ performance isn’t always up to snuff, but he has worlds of talent, and the Giants’ culture would affect him positively. He’d be a great addition for New York.

30. Titans – DT Ziggy Hood, Missouri
Orginally, I had Percy Harvin slotted in here. It would be very out of character for the Titans to take a wide receiver, because that’s been a long term need for them that hasn’t been addressed in the draft’s opening round. But here’s why I can see Harvin fitting in this year: Chris Johnson. Remember last year that Tennessee picked the fastest guy on the board (Johnson had run a sub-4.3 40) and then figured out how to use him. Harvin is like Johnson, only with more receiving skills. Having both players on the field at the same time would make the Titans offense suddenly frightening. But the closer we get to the draft, the more problems seem to come up with Harvin. So we swapped this pick to Ziggy Hood, a defensive tackle who is rising up the draft board. The Titans haven’t been afraid to take risks on guys like that, and more often than not the organizational professionalism has rubbed off and affected the players for the better. (See Albert Haynesworth as Exhibit A.) But there’s just too much smoke (pun intended) for them to take Harvin. As for Hood, after the loss of Haynesworth via free agency, he would fit it at a position that’s obviously a need area for Tennessee. Plus, it’s hard to pass up a guy named Ziggy. So we’ll say that Ziggy zags to Nashville. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

31. Cardinals – RB Chris Wells, Ohio State
The back they call “Beanie” has been projected as a top-15 pick, but a foot injury has raised some questions. Couple that with the fact that running backs usually get drafted a tad later than expected, and I think he’ll be available for the Cards at the end of the first round. He’d be a great fit for Arizona here, especially since Edgerrin James is still a potential salary-cap cut. (James actually wants out to try to find a new home that will come with more playing time.) Wells would be a lead back who could combine with Tim Hightower to provide a stronger running back than the Cardinals have had in recent memory. At this point, the Cardinals need to take the best guy on the board, and Wells is among that list.

32. Steelers – OT Phil Loadholt, Oklahoma
Despite winning the Super Bowl last year, the Steelers have a pretty significant issue on the offensive line. So look for them to spend this pick on a lineman who can plug in and play immediately. While most mock drafts have the Steelers taking a center such as Alex Mack or Max Unger or Eric Wood, center is another of the positions where players tend to last longer than expected. (That’s how the Panthers got Ryan Kalil a few years back.) So we’ll project the Steelers to take another tackle, and since Mel Kiper is guaranteeing that Loadholt will be a first rounder, we’ll opt for him over William Beatty.

So there you have it. More than 4,000 words of preja vu predictions that will likely look foolish by Saturday night. We’ve pushed wide receivers and running backs down the chart and offensive tackles up the chart, so we’ll see if those trends hold on Saturday.

We’ll self-evaluate this mock after the weekend, and we’ll also be posting quick thoughts on the draft and a relativity comparison on how teams did next week. So stay tuned, and if you have mock draft predictions (and if you’re still reading), post them as comments below.

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Filed under NFL draft, outlandish prediction, preja vu

Draft OP: Is Aaron Curry worth the top pick?

Let the bias begin…

As a Wake Forest grad, I watch a lot of Demon Deacon football. That’s especially true over the last three years because we (I paid that school enough dough to use that pronoun) have actually been good. It’s been a little surreal to see Wake go to three straight bowl games, given that during my college career the football team won six games. (Yes, that’s a total.)

Now, the Deacons have produced one of the best players available in this year’s NFL draft — LB Aaron Curry. Some have called Curry the most complete prospect in this year’s draft. For example, Curry was at the top of Mel Kiper’s March 26 Big Board. Such ratings have put Curry in the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick. But is Curry worth that lofty investment? Time for another outlandish prediction…

Curry is a three-year starter and four-year contributor who was a playmaker at OLB for the Demon Deacons. He won the Butkus Award in ’08 as the country’s best linebacker after recording 105 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and an interception. That followed an ’07 season in which he had  99 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, and 4 picks, three of which he returned for touchdowns. He had 83 tackles as a sophomore starter, including 8.5 tackles for loss. So he’s been productive throughout his career, and he’s gotten better and made more plays as he goes along. He’s a thick, solidly built guy (6-2, 250) who has good speed and instincts. He can play middle linebacker, strong-side backer in the 4-3, and could even play outside ‘backer in the 3-4. He’d be more of a Lamarr Woodley than a DeMarcus Ware in that scenario, but that could still work.

So Curry is versatile enough to play just about anywhere at linebacker, and he’s unlikely to bust out and become dominant at any of those spots. But is that worth the top overall pick? Linebackers who aren’t pure pass rushers usually aren’t worth top 8 draft positions. Keith Rivers (9th) and Jerod Mayo (10th) were the highest such picks last year; Patrick Willis (11th) was the highest in ’07; A.J. Hawk (5th) and Ernie Sims (9th) were the highest in ’06. All of those players have played well, and Willis and Mayo were defensive rookies of the year. Hawk isn’t measurably better than Mayo or Willis, even though he was picked five spots higher. Most players of this ilk seem to fit as great values in the draft starting with the ninth pick or so.

Still, pure linebackers who make their way into the 9 through 12  stratusphere typically pan out. (Remember, we’re omitting pass-rush OLBs like Vernon Gholston or DeMarcus Ware from this discussion.) Curry is a safe pick, and he would be great value on that tier. But those linebackers typically aren’t eye-popping impact players either. They’re more like clean-up guys who make the tackles they should and occasionally make a big play.

And that’s why, to me, Curry isn’t worth the No. 1 overall pick. He’ll be a good player, but he won’t be the kind of impact player that you’re looking for from the top overall pick. He’d be a lot like Russell Maryland, a DT who Jimmy Johnson made the No. 1 overall pick in 1991. Maryland was never a star, but he was a solid player who contributed to Dallas’ standout defenses in their three Super Bowls in that era. Maryland made just one Pro Bowl and never was a top-3 player at his position.

That, to me, will be Curry’s fate as well. He’ll be a very good player in the NFL, but not a great one. And in a year where quarterbacks and left tackles are available at No. 1 overall, that upside simply doesn’t justify the No. 1 overall pick. The Lions need to take either Matthew Stafford, Jason Smith, or Eugene Monroe, and the Rams should take one player out of that group as well. Curry doesn’t make much sense until Kansas City goes on the clock at No. 3. For the Chiefs at 3, the Seahawks at 4, or the Browns at 5, Curry would be a solid if unspectacular pick. He’ll be a good player wherever he goes. He just won’t be quite good enough to make a team forget that it passed on a burgeoning superstar with a top draft pick.

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Draft OP: Stafford or Sanchez?

 One of the biggest questions going into this draft is which quarterback you would rather have: Matthew Stafford of Georgia or Mark Sanchez of USC? History says that quarterbacks at the top of the draft are a 50-50 proposition. Bet right (a la Peyton Manning), and a team will have its franchise quarterback. Bet wrong (a la Ryan Leaf), and you set your franchise back 3-5 years.

 So is it Stafford or Sanchez this year? I smell an outlanidish prediction coming… but after some thoughts.

*Stafford is the more physically gifted quarterback. He has an unbelievable arm and ideal height. Sanchez has a good but not great arm and is a little more mobile. Advantage here goes to Stafford.
*Stafford started two and a half years and got better each year. (2006: 52.7 completion percentage, 7 TD, 13 INT; 2007: 55.7 completion percentage, 19 TD, 10 INT; 2008: 61.4 completion percentage, 25 TD, 10 INT) Sanchez started one year and had a monster year (65.8 completion percentage, 34 TD, 10 INT). So Stafford has an experience advantage, while Sanchez has a minor statistical advantage.
*Stafford played in the SEC, while Sanchez played in the Pac-10. So while Sanchez didn’t play against stiffs, Stafford faced more athletic defenses that are more pro ready. That’s another experience advantge to Stafford.
*ESPN wrote about a stat analysis that says Sanchez is the far better bet. Basically, this complicated formula compared Sanchez to Ben Roethlisberger and Chad Pennington and compared Stafford to Cade McNown and Joey Harrington. (The link is worth a click.)
*When it comes to charisma and leadership, Sanchez seems to ooze locker-room prowess. Stafford isn’t as dynamic, but his declaration that he wants to go to Detroit and turn things around counts for something.

With all that said, my pick would be…

Sanchez.

Stafford could end up being a good quarterback, but for some reason I get the feeling that Sanchez will end up with the better pro career. In my mind, he’s more likely to win a Super Bowl and less likely to bust out. I know that banking on a quarterback with only one year of starting experience is a white-knuckle chance to take, but that’s the feeling I can’t shake.

I may be right, and I may be wrong. (Hey, 11 years ago I preferred Leaf to Manning on draft day. This is an inexact science.) But the outlandish prediction is that Sanchez will be a better pro than Stafford.

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Peppers part 2

OK, I was unfortunately a little imprecise in my outlandish predictions on Julius Peppers earlier this week. In predicting trades, I ignored the Patriots, who have been widely rumored to be interested. The thought had actually crossed my mind (I hear you now: yeah, right), but because I was trying to identify potential players in a trade, I omitted the Patriots.

The Pats do have the ammo to get Peppers, with a first-round pick and three second-rounders. The rumor out there is the No. 34 overall pick that the Pats got from K.C. in the Matt Cassel trade. My thought is that the Panthers would need to get at least two of those picks, including one of the two highest, for a deal to be worth it. But that wouldn’t be a bad return for Peppers

For the record, here are other 3-4 teams that I failed to mention in the earlier post: 49ers, Jets, Browns, Chargers, Ravens, Steelers, Chiefs, Dolphins. It’s hard to see resolution for the Peppers situation in any of those spots, but now you know.

Leave a comment with any ideas you might have  with one of these teams, or anyone else.

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OP: Whither Julius Peppers?

As a Panthers follower (OK, probably fan), I’ve been thinking about what the Panthers can do to solve the stalemate with franchise free agent Julius Peppers. The defensive end wants out of Carolina, preferring to go to a team that plays a 3-4 defense. But the Panthers want to keep him and so used a franchise tag that guarantees Peppers a one-year deal worth more than $16.6 million in ’09. That tag has clogged the Panthers’ cap so much that Carolina had less than $25,000 under the cap before cutting CB Ken Lucas last week. They still barely have enough to sign draft picks, and they won’t be able to address any other team issues (quarterback, wide receiver, defensive line depth among them) until they do something with Peppers.

What are their options? And what prediction (however outlandish) do we make? Read on.

1. Keep him – This is the Panthers’ preference, but Peppers isn’t amenable at all. Unless some sort of major deal is worked out (and that appears unlikely), it seems the only way this happens is if the Panthers wait Peppers out until about the beginning of training camp. At that point, Peppers wouldn’t really have any options in free agency, and his only way to play in ’09 would be with Carolina. A holdout would be likely, but eventually Peppers would take the $16-plus million and play the year. The problem with this scenario is that the Panthers would be in salary-cap purgatory all the way through the offseason, which would inhibit the team’s ability to improve elsewhere. This is not an appealing option, although the Panthers might be stubborn enough to try it.

2. Let someone else sign him – Peppers isn’t an “exclusive” franchise player, which means another team could sign him. But a team would have to give up two first-round picks to sign Peppers. That would give the Panthers an out, but it’s unlikely. Most of the time, when a franchise player changes teams, it’s because teams work out compensation. (That’s what happened with Matt Cassel this offseason, for example.) I’d cast this as unlikely as well.

3. That leaves one option: Trade him – Peppers wants out, and there is reportedly a list of 3-4 teams that he wants to be traded to. (The only details we’ve gotten are Dallas, two other NFC teams, and an AFC team.) So what trades are possible? Let’s delve into four theoretical/hypothetical options to see if they make sense. (Note: These are my ideas, based on analysis but not on reporting, inside info, or even rumors.)

Peppers to Dallas for Greg Ellis and picks – Dallas, the one named team, doesn’t make sense because the Cowboys have DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer in the outside ‘backer spot that Peppers would fill.  Dallas is trying to re-sign Ware to a multi-year deal, and it would be hard to imagine the Cowboys giving big bucks to both Ware and Peppers despite Jerry Jones’ penchant for collecting big names. If a deal were to happen, the Cowboys would probably want to trade Greg Ellis, who has played down lineman and has a decent-sized salary. Ellis is a North Carolina product (like Peppers), so a move to Carolina would probably be OK with him. But the Panthers would have to get more than Ellis, because a 33-year-old defensive lineman doesn’t have a long shelf life. The Panthers might even prefer Anthony Spencer, a former first-round pick who hasn’t yet panned out. Either way, Dallas would have to include some draft picks, but they don’t have a first or a third this year because of the Roy Williams trade. This deal seems very unlikely.

Peppers to Green Bay for Aaron Kampman and picks – The Packers are one of 4 teams moving to the 3-4 defense as their primary defense for next season. (You’ll see two more of those teams below.) The Packers have some players who fit the scheme perfectly (DE Cullen Jenkins, ILB A.J. Hawk), but one who doesn’t seem to is DE Aaron Kampman. Kampman’s dimensions remind you of Shawne Merriman and DeMarcus Ware, but does he have the same athleticism? It might make sense for Green Bay to trade for Peppers to fill that marquee slot. That would be a big departure for the Packers in terms of organizational philosophy, but it could work. Kampman, who had 9 1/2 sacks and has 37 over the past 3 years,  would be an acceptable replacement for Peppers in Carolina. He’s a very good defensive end (almost Pro Bowl level at his best) and would soften the sting of Peppers’ loss a little bit. Kampman plus a second-round pick wouldn’t be a terrible haul for the Panthers in exchange for Peppers. It wouldn’t be equal value, but it would be 80 cents on the dollar, which is probably all the Panthers can hope for given the leverage Peppers has via the salary-cap situation. This move would make sense for Carolina if Green Bay wanted to do it.

Peppers to Denver for QB Jay Cutler – And now the wild-goose chase of ideas really starts to get far afield. The Broncos and Cutler are in a disagreement that is quickly turning into an all-out war. It appears now that trading Cutler, which would have been unimaginable at the end of the season, is now at least a 50-50 proposition. Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels has said he’s not trading Cutler only for draft picks. But would they trade him for Peppers? Like Green Bay, Denver is moving to a 3-4 defense this offseason. But the Broncos don’t really have dynamic pieces in their front seven. So Peppers would definitely fit in. This would also be a fair value trade. Cutler would allow the Panthers to say goodbye to Jake Delhomme and start a new quarterback era that’s coming in 2010 if it doesn’t happen this offseason. Delhomme is a loved Panther, but his abominable performance in the playoffs last year likely portends the end of his tenure in Carolina. If the Panthers could get Cutler, the pain of losing Peppers would at least be worth it because it meant a major step forward elsewhere.

Peppers to Arizona for WR Anquan Boldin – This is wild-goose chase part deux. Arizona is another team moving to a 3-4 defense this year, at the behest of head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who is trying to get back to his Pittsburgh roots. But there’s not a clear outside pass rusher on the Cardinals’ roster, especially after Antonio Smith departed via free agency. Enter Peppers. He would add a pass-rush capability the Cards haven’t had in years and make that defense better. Peppers, DT Darnell Dockett, LB Karlos Dansby, and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would be four pretty good building blocks for any D. So who would the Cardinals give up in return? Bolding makes the most sense. He’s never going to be happy as the second banana in Arizona because of the contract situations he and Larry Fitzgerald have. While a move to Carolina would mean again teaming with a high-profile receiver, the Panthers are probably better able to match Boldin’s salary to Steve Smith’s. Boldin would be the complement to Smith the Panthers have been looking for, for a long time. The move would make both teams better, at least in the short run.

So in summary, what is our outlandish prediction? The trade that’s most likely to happen is the Green Bay move for Aaron Kampman. While that doesn’t sound sexy at all, it would address the issues the Panthers have and allow Peppers the defensive system he wants. It’s a move the Panthers wouldn’t want to make, but it appears more and more that it’s a move they’ll have to make. Patience is a virtue, but patience alone isn’t going to bail the Panthers out of this situation.

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OP: Super Bowl pick

OK, it’s time to make a Super Bowl pick. So far, we’re 7-3 in the playoffs against the spread and 6-4 straight up. (Some of those picks precede the blog, but trust me, we have documentation.)

This is a tricky game to pick, because the Cardinals are harder to judge than any team in the Super Bowl in recent memory. Are they like the Giants of ’07 – a team with talent that didn’t play at top level for the first three-quarters of the season but then got hot at the right time? Or are they a “fluke” Super Bowl team like the 1979 Rams or the 1986 Patriots that’s going to get thumped in the biggest game of all?

There’s no doubt that Arizona has talent. If all that talent plays well, they will be in this game. But what are the chances of that? It’s happened just once in the playoffs (against Carolina). In the other two playoff games, Arizona got somewhat uneven performances from the offense and defense but had enough offense to win?

Warner should have a big game, and Larry Fitzgerald just won’t be stopped. Those two predictions aren’t outlandish at all. If those two things are set, then it should be set for the Cardinals to score at least 17 points.

So then the question is what the Steelers can do offensively. This team is not a huge points producer anyway, so when we think the Cardinals will score 17 or more, we face a dilemma. The Steelers can score 20 or 21 and win. But can they cover a touchdown spread?

That’s why my first inclination is to pick the Steelers to win by 3 or 4 points. But the trend says that we shouldn’t pick a team to cover the spread unless we think they’ll win outright. In the playoffs, the favorites that won covered the spread, and the underdogs who covered the spread also won the game (including the Cardinals three times).

With all that in mind, here’s an extremely detailed outlandish prediction of what’s going to happen…

Steelers go up early by getting one long drive and one big passing play to Santonio Holmes. Meanwhile, the Steelers hold the Cardinals to field goals on two early drives. That’ll make it 14-6 in the second quarter.

An exchange of touchdowns (Arizona’s by Fitzgerald) makes it 21-13 in the middle of the third quarter. Then Arizona scores again and goes for 2 but fails, and it’s 21-19 in the mid-fourth quarter.

But Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger, who has been so much better late in games this season then he has in the first 3 1/2 quarters, put together a long, clock-killing drive that ends up in a short running touchdown to make it 28-19 with less than three minutes left.

Arizona starts flinging the ball around in a mad dash to get back, but there’s a turnover, and we have our final score…

Pittsburgh 28, Arizona 19.

Feel free to post your own predictions as comments.

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